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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.

Senator Doug Whitsett
R- Klamath Falls, District 28

Phone: 503-986-1728    900 Court St. NE, S-303, Salem, Oregon 97301
Email: sen.dougwhitsett@state.or.us
Website: http://www.leg.state.or.us/whitsett
State Seal
E-Newsletter 8/21/14

  ODOF "Every Acre Counts" -- Where the feds fail, Oregon excels

The Oregon Department of Forestry did an exceptional job of putting out four wildfires in southern Klamath County during the past few weeks. The Algoma, Bryant, Moccasin Hills and Ferguson wildfires consumed a total of nearly 5,000 acres of privately owned timber and brush-covered land. According to the fire reports, twenty dwellings were destroyed and about that many other structures were burned.

Some readers may know that I worked for the USFS as a wild land fire fighter for several summers while earning my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State. Our "hotshot" crew was stationed in Redmond, Oregon. We fought 43 major fires in eight western states while I was a member of the "Roadrunners." I have been able to spend some time on site during this summer's fires.

All four wildfires were man-caused. Conditions are so incredibly dry that a single spark and a gentle breeze can create an inferno within minutes. The addition of steep terrain, hot windy weather and limited access added to the potential for disastrous outcomes.

Absent the Department's immediate first-strike and sustained response, each of these fires would have been much more destructive and would have endangered many more lives and property. In fact, virtually no natural barriers exist on at least three of the wildfires that would have impeded their growth into tens of thousands of acres.

Landowners pay the Department of Forestry an annual per acre assessment to protect their property and forest land. The department is contracted to fight fires that start or burn on landowners' protected property, and fires that originate on federal or state owned land that threatens their property and timber resources.

The State essentially matches the first $10 million of those landowner assessments with taxpayer General Fund. Te next $25 million of fire suppression costs is paid through a Lloyd's of London fire liability insurance policy purchased by the State.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimburses the State for certain wildfire suppression costs on state protected land where peoples' lives, homes and possessions are endangered. Fire suppression costs on state protected land in excess of $45 million, not reimbursed by FEMA, are paid out of the General Fund.

For the first time this budget period, the Oregon Legislature allocated about $5 million to enhanced "first strike" capabilities. Air tankers, helicopters, bulldozers, pumpers and other equipment and firefighters have been pre-positioned to enhance their ability to reach a fire and put it out before it gets out of control. The "first strike" capability is paying huge dividends. 

The Department has been able to quickly respond to each major wildfire with sufficient equipment and manpower to knock it down and put it out. They have been able to access multiple air tankers, water dropping helicopters, bulldozers and pumpers, within the first 24 hours. In fact, more than 800 people were fighting the Bryant Fire on its second day.

All four fires have been stopped and extinguished in spite of very dry conditions, high winds, and soetimes treacherously steep hillsides.

The Department successfully implemented their new motto that “every acre counts”. They primarily employed direct attack firefighting by getting in close and stopping the fire at its natural edges. They minimized the number of private forest acres burned by employing burn-out fires and backfires only when absolutely necessary. 

Their communications with landowners, and the local communities have  been exceptional. They ask for and used community knowledge of the area to determine points of access and the availability of water. They were in constant contact with landowners and the local community explaining their plan of attack, why it needed to be done and how they intended to do it. 

Virtually no natural sources of water were available for the fire fighters on the Bryant fire because of the extreme drought conditions. Local ranchers pumped groundwater into reservoirs and canals for helicopters and pumpers to use on the fire. In fact, one of the wells used extensively in the air attack effort is an irrigation drought well that the Oregon Department of Water Resources had initially told the owner he could not use this summer. 

In my opinion, the Department's fire fighting operations on the four local fires have been both professional and very effective.

It has not always been that way! In my opinion, the fire-fighting effort two years ago on the Berry Point Fire near Lakeview was neither professional nor effective. The fire was under the management of professional US Forest Service fire teams. The Oregon Department of Forestry was at best ineffective in asserting their fire management goals and direct attack techniques. 

That wildfire burned more than 90,000 acres. It burned out of control for eleven days, destroying more than 30,000 acres of privately owned forestland. 

Backfires and burn-outs were employed so frequently that tens of thousands of acres of forests were needlessly destroyed.

Many of those fires, ignited at the direction of fire management, pointlessly incinerated private forested land. Several of those backfires never reached the edges of the original fire. Others threatened homes and ranches. Most egregiously, more than one of the backfires threatened the lives of landowners fighting to save their own property. 

Effective communications with landowners and the Lakeview community were virtually non-existent. Fire crews were given inadequate directions, virtually worthless maps and too often left large sections of the fire lines unmanned. 

Landowners who tried to help were ignored and shunned. Their property was not protected and too often incinerated by indirect firefighting efforts. 

Even professional fire fighters were stunned at the near total lack of effective fire management. 

For the past two years we have continued to work with the Department of Forestry to correct that travesty. Several landowner meetings were held in Lakeview. The meetings were attended by Oregon Department of Forestry and US Forest Service Regional Directors and their fire staffs. They were told of their failures, face to face, with the folks whose forest they failed to protect and whose lives they needlessly endangered. 

We held a total of three contentious and adversarial legislative hearings in the Capitol. One of those hearings lasted nearly six hours. We asked tough question and demanded straight forward answers. 

Those hearings led a two day meeting of statewide forestland owners, professional fire fighters, and agency employees. The meeting was held in Bend after the 2013 fire season. The conversations were candid. The focus was on finding solutions. 

To his credit, Oregon State Forester Doug Decker listened, and understood the issues and the public anger. He is taking a number of actions that we all hope will prevent another Berry Point. 

Interagency contracts are being amended. Interagency agreements are being clarified. A new culture was developed that “every acre counts” in Oregon. The federal forest managers’ “let it burn” polices will no longer be tolerated. 

The Department’s clear message now is to protect every acre of privately owned protected land. The focus is to “put the fire out first”, and to ask questions and deal with related issues after the fire is no longer a threat. 

We are also working together to create a source of funding to help private landowners rehabilitate the forests for damage caused by fire-fighting activities. The most effective time to repair that damage is soon after the fire is over. Funds must be available to do that work. 

The cost of reforesting east-side forests after a wildfire often exceeds the salvage value of the burned timber. This reality may create a perverse disincentive to harvest and replant. We are working with the Department to create another fund to help with the costs of replanting those devastated forest lands. 

Last year, Oregon wildfires burned the most acres in several decades. Nevertheless, the Oregon Department of Forestry has made huge improvements in their efforts to protect private forest lands. Forest owners have been quick and effusive in complementing that progress. 

Severe drought conditions, coupled with the near complete lack of federal forest management, may cause this year to be the worst year ever for Oregon wildfires. The Department of Forestry has already responded to two major fires that incinerated tens of thousands of acres. Fire suppression costs are already approaching $20 million.

By all accounts, their fire suppression efforts have been exceptional. At this point, we couldn’t be more pleased with our efforts to restructure Oregon’s wildfire protection services, nor could we be more pleased with the fire suppression work of the Oregon Department of Forestry. 

We can never undo the damage caused at Berry Point. That scar will haunt the people of Lake County for at least the next two generations. However, that fire has become the rallying cry for better forest management and for more effective fire control efforts.

We must keep that momentum moving forward.

Please remember, if we do not stand up for rural Oregon no one will.

Best Regards,





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